It’s Not Academic Writing’s Fault

ProfessorBecause I am conducting research on academic writing and how it is taught across disciplines, I read Nicholas Kristof’s recent column, “Professors, We Need You!”, and Joshua Rothman’s response “Why is Academic Writing So Academic?”, with great interest. Kristof’s basic premise is that academic writing has gotten so arcane, so quantitative, so liberal, and so jargon-y that it’s become virtually irrelevant in the mainstream exchange of ideas. Rothman’s reply, in a nutshell, claims that this is a structural problem and it’s not the fault of academics– indeed, in a world where there are only a fraction of tenure-track positions available for graduating PhD’s, academics work as hard as they can to get a leg up by producing just the kind of esoteric texts that Kristof is lamenting. There are links to several other contributions to the debate within the Rothman piece, and I recommend most of them too.

I probably won’t be adding much to the debate as it already exists in the multiple op-eds, blog posts, and comment feeds that have already sprung up, so I’ll try to keep my own thoughts brief:

1. Kristof bemoans anti-intellectualism in his column, saying that (often politically based) accusations of snobbery have led over the years to the marginalization of academia (as one extreme example of this, several years ago I heard a clip from a Glen Beck show where he warned his listeners against the evil and corrupting nature of the university, and suggested instead that his audience check out his own “Beck University” where one can “learn history as it really happened.” The clip has haunted me ever since like a car accident you can never un-see). But Kristof exhibits an anti-intellectualism of his own when he indicates that “specialized” = “bad.” Why should academics dumb down what they write just to assuage the egos of non-academic readers? As Matt Reed writes in his thoughtful response to Kristof, the peer review process in academic publishing serves a “quality control” function. Shouldn’t things “pass muster… [before being] shared with the masses”? To categorically call academic prose “gobbledygook” is to make the very sad error of hating what you don’t understand. The bar for academic research should not be lowered simply because most people wouldn’t take the American Education Research Journal (to offer an example from my own field) on a beach vacation with them. I myself don’t read the AERJ unless I have to… but sometimes I have to.

2. As plenty of the authors (including Kristof) already showed, many scholars work hard– in some cases way harder than they should– to get the public to acknowledge verified scientific findings. Human-caused climate change is one perfect example of this. (Can this issue still possibly be a matter of debate?) Converting research into popular articles and PBS documentaries seems to make little or no difference to the people who have simply made up their minds. Another example, again from my field, is the anti-education reform movement. Scholars like Diane Ravitch are doing plenty to bring their research to the mainstream to demonstrate that Common Core State Standards have NOT been field tested, that high-stakes testing leads to corruption and student failure, that school closures and teacher firings do NOT improve learning… and yet policy makers are carrying on their merry way with these very policies. Are academics to be blamed if they are not as persuasive as reductive politicians and talking heads?

Furthermore, it seems that when scholars publish in the mainstream, they lose their identification (and perhaps credibility) as scholars. Sometimes this is on purpose. When Anne Marie Slaughter published her wave-making article “Why Women Can’t Have It All” in the Atlantic, the piece was only tangentially related to the fact that she is a political science professor at Princeton. The meat of the article was about women in the workplace and in writing it the author relied more on her experience as a mother than on her scholarly expertise. Though the piece sparked an important conversation in the public sphere, it probably would have had no bearing on whether or not she got tenure (if she hadn’t already had it). And this is fine. Lots of scholars publish in the mainstream, either on their own research or on some other topic, and when they do they aren’t scholars in that context. They become social critics, op-ed writers, or maybe just blowhards. But what’s wrong with that? Academia is academia and the mainstream is the mainstream. I’m not sure what Kristof thinks will be gained by attempting to conflate the two. The real problem lies not with the inaccessible language of academic prose, but with the public’s occasional refusal to accept the conclusions of peer reviewed research if it doesn’t align with their political leanings.

The goal of my research and my career is to improve the writing skills of college students. Employers complain constantly about how these skills are not up to snuff, and spend billions of dollars a year remediating recently graduated new hires. Dumbing down academic prose is not going to make students better communicators or critical thinkers. The sooner we can accept the fact deep reading and complex writing is just plain hard, the sooner we can start figuring out ways to help young people learn to do it.

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2 thoughts on “It’s Not Academic Writing’s Fault

  1. Ah, this is a subject near and dear to my heart.

    When I became a reporter, frankly I hard to un-learn at least half of what I’d been taught in College about writing (and I had to separate entirely the writing I was doing for Master’s while at the same time working as a daily newspaper reporter). Make sure to have an introduction, a middle, and a conclusion? Forget about it – people’s attention spans to last that long. I also repeatedly had longer words edited out where shorter ones would do. I was also under length constraints that didn’t really exist in academia. If I was assigned a 10-page paper but wrote an 18-page paper instead, I was a good student. If I turned in a news story twice as long as we had space for, I was a bad reporter.

    At first I chaffed at this and lamented the “dumbing down” of my writing. How could I properly achieve my mission as a reporter if I had to write at a 7th-grade reading level and keep every story half the length its subject deserved? Gradually, though, I began to take the constraints as a challenge to be more concise and more direct, and to decisively GET TO THE POINT.

    These lessons stay with me today, sometimes I think to the detriment of the very dense subjects I’m often writing about. But the upside of it is of course that more people read me and understand and hopefully take to heart what it is I’m dishing out.

    My advice to an academic who wants to be understood by a broad audience (and not just lauded by their peers) would not necessarily be to “dumb it down.” It would be to write more clearly and and succinctly. I actually think this can be done without treating one’s audience as if they are either stupid or lazy. But writing this way is much harder, and I think academics have a tendency to hide behind their professional standards rather than make their writing more accessible. (“But I’m a PhD!! This is what’s expected by my peers!!” they will think to themselves…)

    Just as in the common trope that writing a short letter takes more time than writing a long letter, communicating difficult subjects clearly and concisely is more difficult than communicating difficult subjects in a some long, intricate, treatise.

    This is not to say I expect academia to suddenly change its style and open up… But the confines of academia, particularly as regards its writing conventions, is a big part of why I’m not so concerned about getting a PhD. I think it’s as likely to train me out of broadly communicating important ideas as it is to help me do that.

    Anyway, that’s just my little contribution to the dialogue, as a journalist and marketing professional.

  2. Great writing megan, thanks for sharing it. I agree that the divisions between writing for the academic and outer/public worlds are there for a reason. As you say, why ‘dumb it down’ for an audience the work was never intended for? The vocabulary of a specialized discipline maybe be bafflingly arcane to the lay person – but yes, who cares?

    That said, there are some real issues with where we are today. First, sometimes the super-specialized language can even baffle people in the disciple – and that is a problem. People test this by submitting “gobbledygook” papers that say nothing to journals and have them accepted! What does that say? So I think each disciple should be on guard to demand brevity and clarity, and cut to the point whenever possible.

    There is another level here though. We absolutely do need to a better job in translating useful reseach to a much wider audience. I have noticed the trend recognizing this in science writing in things that I read regularly, and it helps. It isn’t just dumbing it down to the average person on the street exactly – there is a step in between to people who teach or convey via the media. I may not understand the latest technique protocols for assaying the latest anti-HIV drug, but I would like to know if it works, and basically why, so that I can tell my students about it in a way that they can relate. And this is super important since almost all of them will turn out to be just regular folk, and not scientists or people who will regularly browse ‘Nature’.

    As to the unaccepted conclusions out in the world at large (like climate change, and the biological basis for sexual orientation), while I wish that things could go much faster than they are, movement is happening here too. It’s hard to detect societal change when you are in the middle of it, so that might be a part of it. But you may have noticed that the argument that being gay is a ‘lifestyle choice’ has largely evaporated in recent years, despite the efforts of tenacious idiots like Mr. Beck. In the case of climate change, while it might simply be too late to do what could/should have been done – here too the accretion of data (and the really shitty weather) seems to be finally having an effect on the overall consciousness as well.

    Be of good cheer & keep fighting the good fight – it totally matters…

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